Pollaxe - Plays

Pollaxe – 3rd master

Folio 37 v. b

Translation

This pollaxe of mine is full of powder and the said pollaxe has holes around and around it. And this powder is very strongly corrosive, that immediately it touches the eyes, there is no way the man can open them and perhaps he may be blinded.

Pollaxe are heavy, cruel and deadly, making better blows than any other hand held weapon. And if I fail the first blow I come to do, the pollaxe is damaged and of no more worth. And if I strike with the first blow then I hinder any manual weapon. And if I am well armed to complement my defence, I take the pulsing guards of the sword. Very noble Lord, my Marquis, there are things in this book that you would not do. But to further your knowledge, I show them here.

This is the powder that goes into the pollaxe drawn above. Take the milk of the spurge, and dry it in the sun or a hot oven to make a powder. Take two ounces of this powder and one ounce of the powder of the flower of preda, and mix together. Put this powder in the pollaxe shown above. Although you can do this with any caustic powder, you will find the best recipe in this book.

Interpretation

There is a lot to unpack in this wildly unusual play. This highly specialised pollaxe has for its head a hollow cylinder drilled full of holes and packed with caustic powder. There is a tremendous amount of effort involved in preparing the weapon. It is good for one thrust, which is intended to envelop your opponent in a cloud of blinding powder. The helmet the master wears is unlike any other in the book.  It appears to have a mesh mask of some kind to protect their own eyes from the powders effects.

The second paragraph is a little ambiguous. That ‘pollaxe are heavy, cruel and deadly, making better blows than any other hand held weapon’ is true of pollaxes in general. The second sentence appears to refer to this pollaxe specifically. The head of the pollaxe is damaged on the first strike, after which, you presumably drop it and continue with the sword. Any further attempts to use the pollaxe would be to shower caustic blinding powder all over yourself.

Fiore tells us that ‘if I were well armed to complement my defence, I would use the pulsing guards of the sword.’ The design of the pollaxe and the emphasis on landing the first blow show us that this weapon is in no way concerned with defensive actions. If your initial attack fails, you will be relying on your sword which you brought to complement your defence.

As described in the sword in two hands section, the pulsing (pulsativa) guards are postas tutta porta di ferro, donna destra and donna sinistra. Rather frustratingly, Fiore never elaborates on what this term means. The commonality of all these guards, however, is that they are good defensive guards. They have a pulsing motion in that from a point of stillness, they can strongly beat aside incoming attacks.

In the six guards of the sword in two hands section, where the master carries a sword like a pollaxe, Fiore tells us that ‘heavy weights cause light weights much trouble.’ Given the weight disparity between pollaxe and sword this becomes critical. It is the capacity to beat massive attacks aside which explains why specifically the pulsing guards are best used with a sword against a pollaxe.

In the text accompanying the play, Fiore also gives us the recipe for his powder. He recommends using dried and powdered sap from a type of spurge and the ‘flower of preda.’ Anyone who has studied the history of herbalism will be well acquainted with the problems of identifying plants by their common name.

Spurge is the common name for a large genus of plants called Euphorbia which has over 2000 species. It is unknown which one he is referring to. Quite a number of species naturally occur in Italy. Although there is variance between the different species, Euphorbia all contain milky sap which is highly inflammatory to mucous membranes. The congealed latex is insoluble in water, and must be washed off with an emulsifier such as milk or soap. The caustic effects were traditionally used to burn off warts and corns.

It is unknown what the flower of preda is. It may not even be an actual flower at all, but a poetically named mineral.

Dehydrating and powdering the latex, although technically simple, would be a process involving a high degree of caution and danger, especially given the amount required to pack a weapon head. There are certainly examples of caustic powder, usually lime, being thrown at enemy combatants during defence of walls in a siege situation. This, however, is the only example I am aware of where it is used as a personal weapon.

Despite the many interesting details and tangents this play gives us, Fiore himself provides the clearest summary. ‘There are things in this book that you would not do.’